Having achieved widespread popularity in central Europe, snowshoeing is just beginning to become known here in the UK, as a growing number of people discover how liberating it is to be able to step off the beaten (or ploughed) track and strike out into the white wilderness.
This February I had the chance to join our local guide Torkel for four days of snowshoeing and winter camping in the silent expanses of Vålådalen Nature Reserve in western Sweden.
Torkel is no stranger to the frozen wastes, having traversed Greenland in the footsteps of Nansen, and no stranger to adventure, having been the first person, along with his wife Annica, to make an extended expedition right around Sweden.
With the prospect of exploring the mountains in such rugged company, I was just a little apprehensive about what I’d let myself in for as I slithered along in my little Vauxhall Corsa hire car up the 30km forest track through a howling snowstorm to Vålådalen Tourist Station, where we were to assemble next morning to head off into the wilds.
That evening, I received a cheery call from Torkel asking me to drive down the road a few kilometres to his house to collect some equipment I had arranged to borrow. I looked out with trepidation at the blizzard raging outside.
“Umm…are you sure?” I said. “Couldn’t I pick it up tomorrow? What about the snow?”
“Snow? What snow? Oh, don’t worry about that, there’s just a dusting…”
And so I set out of the station car park, windscreen wipers going for all they were worth but failing miserably to clear my vision, headlights straining weakly through the white onslaught. “Ah, there’s the road”, I thought confidently, and swung hard left and down the hill. It took just a few metres before it dawned on me that what had looked invitingly like a minor road was in fact a ski track, and sure enough a couple of seconds later I ground decisively to a halt, the nose of the car wedged alarmingly deeply into the snow.
After much grunting and straining and spinning of wheels, there was nothing left for it but to call Torkel to come to my rescue to help push me out of a snowdrift I’d apparently deliberately driven myself into.
After such a shaky start, I was determined to prove my worth as an experienced adventurer over the next few days. We gathered next morning in reception and were taken into a side room to divvy up the food and other equipment for the trip. We were each presented with a mixture of individual food rations (including the worryingly termed “coma bag”, a high-energy mix of chocolate, dried fruit and nuts to munch as needed along the trail) and communal items. We staggered off laden down with all our various bits and pieces to try to find a place for it all in our packs. Some of the more foresighted members of the group had arranged to borrow a “pulk”, or sled, to drag behind, and as I looked at the effortless way they seemed to pack everything down I began to wonder if I shouldn’t have done the same.
When Torkel had lobbed an enormous sack of Santa Claus proportions in my direction the previous evening and proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Here’s your share of the stuff”, I had honestly assumed that he was joking. It had taken me much of the night and a great deal of straining and puffing to get everything into my pack, which was now bulging at every seam. Not heavy at all, as the equipment I had borrowed was top-of-the-range: lightweight Hilleberg tent, two sleeping bags (a synthetic outer and down inner) and Ridgerest sleeping mattress, but the bulk of it proved a real packing challenge. Still, somehow I found a little extra space for the food rations, and at last we were standing together, expectant and ready.
“Have you all brought toilet paper?” asked Torkel, and as one we all scattered sheepishly off to the loos (apologies to any guests at the mountain station at the time who are reading this and found a mysterious absence of loo roll for the rest of the day).
I had done a fair bit of snowshoeing as day tours before, both in Switzerland and Sweden, but I had never had the chance to try an extended expedition. As we flopped around the car park like drunken penguins trying out our snowshoes for size, I just had a feeling that this was going to be a great trip. The wind had dropped, it had stopped snowing and the sun was beginning to peep through the clouds. Mild, stable weather conditions had been forecast for the following days, and we were all very excited indeed. Even Torkel seemed positively brimming with enthusiasm for the trek, which is a very good thing for a guide to be.
“Where are we going?” we asked. “I don’t really know”, answered Torkel with a cheeky smile. This felt a bit odd at first, but was to turn out to be one of the huge attractions of the whole experience for me. There was no fixed route, no fixed destination. We walked when we wanted, stopped when we were hungry, and pitched camp when we were tired. The profound satisfaction of an extended trip where we just walked for the sheer fun of it and to see what we would find was as uplifting as it was unexpected.
It took just a few minutes of self-conscious wobbling before we found our balance, adjusted to the unexpected weight of the packs and sleds and got into the stride of things. We passed quickly along some of the prepared cross-country tracks surrounding the station and then suddenly Torkel stopped in his tracks, looked up as though struck by divine inspiration, and announced “This way!” Clambering over a fence, he headed off into the woods, making fresh tracks in the virgin snow.
As well as being a patient and inspiring guide, Torkel also turned out to be a knowledgeable and passionate naturalist. One of the other real surprises of the trip was to be how much we would learn about the flora and fauna of this region over the next few days, from which lichen are eaten by the passing reindeer to how to tell the difference between pine marten and weasel tracks. Every few minutes we would stop to look at some new discovery, fresh elk tracks in the snow, their depth clearly indicating the great weight of this majestic animal, the phoenix-like patterns left by a capercaillie taken flight from its night shelter beneath the snow, the pitter-patter tracks of a pine marten scurrying from tree to tree.
We stopped for lunch in a forest glade, and set to working out how to get the Primus stoves lit. Always a big fan of Trangias myself (great for general camping, not so good at low temperatures), this was unfamiliar territory for me, and it took a fair bit of fiddling about to get lunch on the go. Torkel maintained a good balance between hanging back to let us work things out for ourselves and pitching in to rescue us from disaster, and before too long we had two stoves hissing away happily melting snow for tea.
When we started to get cold, Torkel had us all “doing the penguin”, hopping up and down with fingers splayed out to the sides to encourage blood flow. We felt silly, but it didn’t matter – there was no-one to see us. In fact, it wouldn’t be until we returned to the station four days later that we would see another human being.
Looking around, at the forest with the imposing bulk of the Jämtland mountains rising behind, at our little group bustling about with the paraphenalia of lunch, at the lichen hanging like miniature beards from the trees, I felt strongly that this was going to be a very very good trip indeed. And, to make life perfect, the tea was ready…
Bob from The Nature Travels Team
This article describes the first day of our Snowshoeing in Wolverine Country experience. The Vålådalen Nature Reserve is also the setting for many of our dog sledding holidays in Sweden, as well as for our summer mountain skills training and guided hiking tour, Mountain Magic for Beginners.
Look out for the next instalment, when we go in search of our first camping spot and discover something fishy in Torkel’s sled…